Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Hitchcock Project-Francis and Marian Cockrell Part Nine: Conversation Over a Corpse [2.8]

by Jack Seabrook

Norman Daniels was the most familiar pen name of a writer named Norman Danberg (1905-1995), who wrote hundreds of stories for the pulps and the digests from the early 1930s to the late 1960s. He also wrote many novels, as well as scripts for the radio and a few teleplays. Two of his stories were adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. His papers are archived at the Browne Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University. In 1981, Daniels was quoted as saying that "I also have a number of TV shows to my credit—Hitchcock, G.E. Theatre, etc. This was, and is, the worst form of writing in history."

The first of his stories to be adapted for the Hitchcock show was "Conversation Over a Corpse," but I have not been able to find any published story by that name. However, I was able to find a copy of a teleplay for this episode by Daniels in the Browne collection; on the title page, there is a handwritten notation that the script was sold to the Hitchcock show for $1000. The credit on screen says that the teleplay is by Marian Cockrell and Norman Daniels and that it is based on a story by Daniels; I think that he wrote the teleplay and sold it to the show and that there is no prior short story. By comparing the Daniels script to the television show, it is clear that Marian Cockrell made significant revisions to the original.

Dorothy Stickney and Carmen Mathews
The script by Daniels opens as Cissie Enright, an older woman, empties the powder from medicine capsules into a glass and puts the glass on a shelf. Her sister Johanna enters and they discuss their plan to poison Ed Brenner, who wants to cheat them out of their home so he can tear it down and build something new on the property. Meanwhile, at the bank, Brenner withdraws $5000 and two tellers discuss his plan to cheat the Enright sisters. Later, Brenner sits in the Enright living room and has tea with the sisters. He tells them that he holds an option on their house and they tell him that they have poisoned him, at which point he falls asleep.

Soon, the sisters sit in the living room with what they think is Mr. Brenner's corpse. They discuss how to dispose of his body, not realizing that he is not dead but rather paralyzed and unable to speak--he narrates his thoughts in voice over. When Johanna leaves the room, Cissie reveals to Brenner that she knows he is alive and tells him that Johanna is not really her sister; her real name is Abigail and she was a nurse for the real Johanna, who is insane and locked away. Brenner begins to regain the power of speech and begs Cissie for help. Cissie continues to hide the fact that Brenner is alive from her sister. She starts to dig a grave and Johanna takes over the job. Brenner convinces Cissie that Johanna plans to have her locked up for killing him; he also convinces her to bring him a gun.

Dorothy Stickney as Cissie
Cissie confronts Johanna, who heads into the living room with an ax to finish off Brenner. Cissie hears a gun go off and enters the living room to find Johanna lying dead on the floor. She serves Brenner a glass of whiskey and he calls the police and blames Johanna for trying to kill him. Suddenly realizing that he has been poisoned a second time, he falls to the floor and Cissie waits for the police to arrive, secure in the knowledge that she will be exonerated.

The script by Daniels is appealing to a TV producer because it includes only five characters and two simple sets. It is essentially a cross between Arsenic and Old Lace, with the two murderous spinster sisters, and "Breakdown," with a paralyzed man believed dead who narrates his thoughts in voice over. After the script was purchased, the producers must have given it to Marian Cockrell to revise, because the version that aired on CBS on Sunday, November 18, 1956, deviates from the script by Daniels in significant ways.

Carmen Mathews as Johanna
Cockrell removes a half-page of dialogue and one of the five characters when she cuts the conversation between two bank tellers about Brenner's intent to cheat the Enright sisters. The opening scenes of the show follow the Daniels script closely, with minor changes in dialogue that may be due to on-set changes by the actors. The script revisions begin in earnest right after Brenner is poisoned. Cissie suggests reading Brenner's tea leaves, but when Johanna remarks that he has no future, Cissie reads Johanna's instead and says she sees death there, too. Johanna says Cissie must have mixed up the cups, but subsequent events reveal that this is an example of foreshadowing added by Marian Cockrell.

Quite a bit of the "conversation" of the title is cut and all but a small amount of Brenner's voice over narration is removed. The stock music cues are light in tone and take the story in a comedic direction that is less obvious in the Daniels script. Cockrell adds another nice touch when Cissie says that she does not want to cut Brenner's body into sections because it would ruin "Mama's rug." Instead of the business of taking his pulse, the two women decide to each grab a foot and drag him outside, where they can drop him down the old well. When they lift his legs, he starts and opens his eyes, causing Johanna to exclaim: "He's alive!" In the Daniels script, Brenner's thoughts are expressed in voice over and Act One ends as Cissie reveals to him that she knows he is alive. In the Cockrell revision, there is no voice over up to this point and both sisters learn of his vivacity at the same moment.

Ray Collins as Brenner
Cockrell tosses out much of Daniels's script in Act Two, where a small bit of voice over by Brenner is heard as the Enright sisters humorously try to figure out how to kill him again. "Papa's elephant gun" is too noisy, but bringing it out and setting it on a table introduces it earlier in the story and makes its use later on less awkward. There are several humorous closeups of Brenner trying to speak and making faces. The sisters try a large knife, but (once again) fear that the blood would ruin Mama's rug. They settle on a blunt instrument as the best choice of a murder weapon but decide that a hammer is not blunt enough and, while a huge rolling pin seems just the thing, neither woman can bring herself to use it.

Cissie brings out an old fashioned bug sprayer and sprays bug killer in Brenner's face, but this only makes him sneeze. She suggests poisoning him again but lies and says that they have used up all of the capsules. Clearly, Cissie has something up her sleeve and, though she pretends to be the dumb one, she is hiding her plans from Johanna. Finally, Johanna thinks of using weed killer and leaves the room to prepare a fatal brew. Cockrell's script picks back up with the original script by Daniels here as Cissie speaks privately with Brenner, though instead of getting Johanna out of the living room by having her go out to finish digging a grave, Cockrell has her off in the kitchen mixing weed killer with orange juice. Since Johanna knows that Brenner is alive, there is no reason for Cissie to hide the knowledge of his condition from her sister.

Ted Stanhope as the bank teller
The final minutes of the show track Daniels's original script, though there is now a hint that Cissie is not sure she will poison Brenner with the spiked whiskey until he confirms that he still intends to take her house away from her. In the end, Cissie succeeds in manipulating every one around her in order to get rid of Johanna and Brenner, keep her house, and avoid suspicion when the police arrive! Stock music cues are one of the chronic problems in the early years of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and, while a bit over done here, the music mostly fits the story and helps guide the episode's tone. After all, two murders are committed and the story is presented as a black comedy!

It is interesting to watch this episode with the script in hand, even though it is a first draft, and see how much of what is on screen is up to the director and the actors, since most of the shots are not set out in the script. Directing the show is Jules Bricken (1915-1987), who worked mostly in episodic television from 1952 to 1963. He directed three episodes of Thriller and three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including another comedic entry, "The Three Dreams of Mr. Findlater."

Receiving top billing as Cissie Enright is Dorothy Stickney (1896-1998), an experienced stage actress whose career started in the 1920s. She appeared in films from the 1930s up to 1970 and on TV from 1949 to 1972. She was in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and in 1962 she appeared in a TV version of Arsenic and Old Lace with Boris Karloff--her role as Cissie provided good training!

Her supposed sister Johanna is played by Carmen Mathews (1911-1995), whose career was mostly on TV from 1950 to 1992. In addition to an appearance on The Twilight Zone, she was seen six times on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Older Sister," another story of domestic murder between siblings.

Ray Collins (1889-1965) manages to be both boorish and funny in his role as Brenner. Like Dorothy Stickney, he had a long career on stage. He was also often heard on Old Time Radio and was a member of Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre, appearing in Citizen Kane. He was on film from 1930 to 1960 and played various roles on TV from 1953 to 1957 until landing the role of Lt. Tragg on the series Perry Mason, a role he played from 1957 to 1965. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show.

Finally, Ted Stanhope (1902-1977) makes a brief appearance as the bank teller. He was onscreen from 1932 to 1971 and played many bit parts and uncredited roles. He was on The Twilight Zone once and this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series.

Thanks to Steve Ammidown at the Browne Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University for sending me a copy of the teleplay by Norman Daniels. Thanks to Phil-Stephenson-Payne for putting the word out to the FictionMags Group to see if anyone could identify a short story by Norman Daniels that served as the basis of this episode. Watch "Conversation Over a Corpse" online here or order the DVD here. The episode was remade for the 1980s version of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and broadcast on January 31, 1987, but that version is currently not available.

Barson, Michael. “An Interview with Norman Daniels.” Paperback Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 3, 1981, p. 5., doi: +norman+daniels&source=bl&ots=pG6UZz__zL&sig=Lru6E1TAxPGIZhMrhf6ML-UjDcE&hl=en&sa= X&ved=0ahUKEwiz48CcsOLXAhXGSyYKHegWB0sQ6AEIWzAI#v=onepage&q=list%20of%20stories%20by%20norman%20daniels&f=false.
“Conversation Over a Corpse.” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 2, episode 8, CBS, 18 Nov. 1956.
Daniels, Norman. Conversation Over a Corpse. Bowling Green State University/Bowling Green, Ohio.
IMDb,, 10 Dec. 2017,
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 10 Dec. 2017,

In two weeks: "The Hands of Mr. Ottermole" starring Theodore Bikel!

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